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Feds move all children from Florida detention center

By
Sommer Brokaw
Children are inside a detention center for unaccompanied migrants in Homestead, Fla., on July 15. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Saturday all children were removed from the site. Photo by Christopbal Herrera/EPA
Children are inside a detention center for unaccompanied migrants in Homestead, Fla., on July 15. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Saturday all children were removed from the site. Photo by Christopbal Herrera/EPA

Aug. 3 (UPI) -- Authorities said Saturday all children in the nation's largest detention center for migrant children have been relocated with upcoming tropical wave on the radar in South Florida.

Children who remained in the center at Homestead were picked up in vans early Saturday morning.

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"Today we are announcing that all [children] sheltered in the Homestead facility have either been reunified with an appropriate sponsor or transferred to a state-licensed facility within the [Office of Refugee Resettlement] network of care providers," the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency over Homestead, said in a statement Saturday. "Since activation in March 2018, approximately 14,300 UAC [unaccompanied alien children] have been sheltered at the Homestead site."

Two federal sources told the Miami-Herald that the children moved are not coming back to Homestead, and for this reason, there will be massive layoffs Monday and Tuesday.

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About 4,000 employees are expected to lose their jobs after 400 were already laid off Friday.

Still, HHS plans to keep about 130 people on site to maintain the property as it remains closed.

Roughly 4,500 people worked at the facility as of last week, in roles, such as youth care workers, medical personnel, case managers, cooks and cleaning staff.

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The center's child population has been declining as the peak of hurricane season approaches. Roughly 3,000 children were there about a month ago, winnowed down to less than 500 earlier this week.

The facility had to narrow its population to 1,200 to abide by safety regulation and reduce that by at least 700 to evacuate for a tropical storm or hurricane.

As of now, 1,200 beds remain in the facility to be used as a last resort for unaccompanied minors.

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Most children were reunited with their families during the effort to downsize, according to HHS, but hundreds still lack sponsors and will age out of the system, according to federal employees close to the operation. Once an unaccompanied minor turns 18, they are handcuffed or shackled and booked into an adult U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility.

The facility's program coordinator estimated that more than 99 percent of the children had fled violence in their home countries and a majority are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, when a CBS News reporter toured the facility back in February.

The site on several acres of federal land adjacent to an Air Reserve Base has been controversial as it is not subject to routine inspections by state child welfare experts. Bunk bed dorms ranged from small rooms of 12 younger children to large halls with up to 200, in rows about a shoulder width apart.

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Attorneys argued that the facility failed to comply with the rules about federal government care for unaccompanied migrant children set in the Flores Agreement, a landmark settlement based on testimony from the children between November and March of this year.

The children said they were "harmed by lengthy detention at Homestead" and were subject to "prison-like" rules. They feared breaking rules such as length of shower, or even hugging or touching their own siblings or not finishing a meal would hurt their chances of being reunited with loved ones.

Attorneys filed dozens of testimonials from children in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in May, as part of a more than 600-page motion, arguing it failed to comply with Flores Agreement.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar told CBS News it would be "improper" if staff told children in some cases that if they stepped out line it would affect their immigration case as alleged. They also were reportedly told after that allegation was made that any such statements would be subject to discipline.

Azar also denied criticism about Border Patrol facilities conditions that are not part of his department.

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"There's been a lot of factual misrepresentations or just ignorant statements made about Homestead and frankly, the broader program that we run at HHS," Azar said.

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